Managing a Mentally Overloaded Brain

We’re still solving the same social challenges faced by cave dwelling, hunter-gatherer ancestors from 200,000 years ago. There’s a deeply ingrained motivation to avoid diseases and physical harm, make friends, acquire status in social groups that we are part of, find mates and keep them. A barrier to achieving these social challenges is choice overload. Search for corn holders online and you’ll sift through at least 550 options (obviously go with the mini ninja swords!). Why would we think the human brain is equipped to search through such an abundance of options? What psychological strategies can help us deal with choice overload?

Picky, Picky, Picky

Think about what you desire most in a long-term romantic partner. Now, let me offer a few of my own well-articulated preferences.

  • Near the top is someone who is warm, compassionate, and supportive. At the least, they are kind to me.
  • Though many are hesitant to say this publicly in today’s hypersensitive environment, there are physical characteristics that attract and repel. Of course, I prefer someone who is satisfying to look at. Larger brachialis muscles, smaller dry, elbow bumps.
  • And I definitely prefer someone who can carry a conversation during 30-minute concert stage breaks between Cage the Elephant and Beck.
  • And it would suck if they could never make me laugh.
  • And it would be deflating if a partner never found anything I said humorous. Maybe a sporadic, genuine, chuckle?
  • Conversations are more enjoyable if someone can spin a good yarn. You know what’s unappealing? Someone retelling how they haggled a hotel room upgrade, thinking it’s essential to spend 27 seconds on whether it was with an assistant manager or manager-in-training. Pick. Skip. Guess. Just move the narrative forward brochoncho!

But those six barely skim the surface.

  • Imagine being with a partner lacking in ambition? Disinterested in making enough money to pay for the water bill much less a few days without canned pinto beans.
  • Imagine feeling constant pressure to impress a partner, even in private. Unable to be off stage, in the green room where you can be effortlessly yourself.
  • Then there is the chronic irritation if you prefer weekends of thrill-seeking adventures while a partner is locked into watching college football games on the coach on Saturday followed by professional football all-day on Sunday, with a torso painted in team colors.

And we still haven’t broached religious values, political beliefs, exercise habits, gratitude, emotional stability, pessimism, greediness, and vindictiveness.

Thinking in Profiles

No single dimension captures a desirable romantic partner. We hold a similar range of criteria for what makes someone stand out as a potential friend. The same goes for selecting jobs, workplaces, or homes.

Based on genetics, personality, and a history of positive and negative life events, we curate interests and preferences. From this, we derive profiles of what we like and dislike. Some of these preferences are particularly stable and common to a vast swath of human beings across time and culture. The reason is preferences for qualities such as kindness, intelligence, and ambition are cues that being with them will be safe and satisfying. We want to base decisions on these preferences. Except our brain often refuses to comply.

Limitations of the Human Bio-Computer

If only the brain could accommodate our pickiness. Unfortunately, there are only so many inputs that we can attend to at a given time. Our attention can be likened to a flashlight, searching for threats and opportunities. The span of space that can be illuminated is limited. A cognitive limitation compounded by an abundance of mate options available. Consider the 4-hour matchmaking party in China where over 5,000 singles showed up to scout for prospects. Laryngeal trauma awaits Chinese singles sifting through party people for the one meeting the key selection criteria. A large number of options seems beneficial. In reality, the mind is boggled and unable to operate effectively.

Unable to process available information, the brain goes on a physiological budget. It takes shortcuts. The hormonal smoke screen of a physically alluring person produces amnesia for other qualities on the list. Someone talks too much which you interpret as narcissism (as opposed to a heightened concern about making a good impression). When the brain is cognitively taxed, here’s what disappears: an appreciation for nuance, prudence, and charity.

Fine-Tuning Lists

Whether in a relationship or seeking one, you’re going to feel an itch as to whether someone else out there is better. Develop a conscious awareness of what matters to you. With this knowledge, you will gain protection from the tyranny of choice.

Separate priorities into categories. There are essentials. Qualities that must be present. Kindness? Physical attraction? Intelligence? Financial independence? Acid reflux upon hearing Belle and Sebastian songs? There are luxuries. Desirable qualities after basic necessities are met. When in Puerto Rico, do they spend more time swimming in the ocean than taking selfies, knee deep in the wet sand?

There are a lot of fish in the sea. There are not, however, a lot of fish who match desired prototypes. The more essential dimensions added, the greater likelihood of becoming a misanthropic, hermit. We must be discerning in whether to go full throttle in search for the optimal option versus satisficing – where we reach contentment with less-than-perfection.

Four Psychological Strategies for Choice Overload

1. Be aware of pursuing each and every desirable dimension in a potential partner. Consider a thought experiment where upon picking a partner, nobody will ever hear about them, see them, or meet them. Social approval from others is now removed from the equation. Now trim down that list of essentials.

2. Be grateful when an approximate match exists. A source of unnecessary pain is the belief that a a prerequisite to forming relationships is finding an ideal mate as opposed to initiating a mutually supportive, deeply intimate relationship that provides nutriments for a mate to reach their potential.

3. Beware of proxies. Be careful of accepting or rejecting someone too quickly on insufficient information. Someone’s muscularity says little about valuing health (it could be killer genetics or anabolic steroids). Someone who is quiet says nothing about social effervescence (they could be pondering something unrelated to the situation).

4. Create space to uncover faulty conclusions. Resist making decisions when the brain is overloaded. Bounce information off one or two people. Explicitly ask people to point out flaws in your thinking. Step away from the stimulation of daily living. Sit on any big decision for at least 24-48 hours. Let slow, cautious cognitive processing dominate while treating speedy intuitions as hypotheses to test.


There are times when much of what I mentioned above is inaccurate. Here are three. First, develop sufficient courage and self-love to leave abusive situations. You can be a committed partner and still be entitled to change your mind at any point, for any reason. Second, there are times when dissimilarity is attractive. When we believe that the likelihood another person will reject us is low, and highly value personal growth, being with someone who is distinct in personality and interests becomes increasingly desirable. Third, we often misunderstand the internalization of societal standards. Through information transmitted by caregivers, teachers, peers, media, we’ve been force fed what is and is not attractive. Question social norms. Experiment. Think for yourself. You might be surprised at who attracts you and for what reason.

Concluding Thoughts

You might possess a long list of well-articulated preferences. But this list is hard to hang onto when the brain experiences cognitive overload. Know how information is used and discarded. Think about when you want to be strict with preferences. Think about when you want to be more flexible and open-minded, detouring toward satisficing over maximizing. Whatever you do, let it be conducted with intention instead of on a whim. This sense of agency in overriding impulses offers a portal to growth and well-being.


Everything in here about romantic relationships relates to other life domains. What education is desirable. Choosing where to live. Pondering career pivots. Selecting skills to build. How can you leverage these psychological insights for your next big decision?

Adopt a birds-eye view of how you make judgments. Notice that whether an option is good or bad is partially determined by societal influences. There are certain faces, personalities, music, foods, and conversational topics that you instinctually seek out. Try to override what you’ve been taught and go in another direction. Even if it’s not enjoyable, and the minimum it will be interesting to uncover what happens.

Know someone with a big decision on the horizon? Share these Provoked ideas with them!

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University. His latest book, available for pre-order, is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.